9 January 2020 • Marjan Aarnoutse
Midas and Sjoerd enthusiastic about energy technology and Techathon 2019
Hmm, do we really want to take part in Techathon 2019? Midas, Sjoerd, Ruben and Tina were not particularly enthusiastic when lecturer Arie Taal suggested that they sign up. But they had the time and realised that this opportunity to network during their last year of study may not be such a bad idea after all. So they decided to sign up after all. And have not regretted it for a moment.
They had a fantastic experience and were able to use all they had learned during the Sustainable Energy Technology minor organised by the Mechanical Engineering degree programme. During the Techathon 2019, these four classmates formed a team, which also comprised senior secondary vocational student Jimmy and two young professionals from Heijmans. They called themselves Team 1 and won the Techathon. An interview with Midas Vork and Sjoerd van Velden reveals how they approached the event, as well as why they are enthusiastic about energy technology.
They were not quite sure what to expect and initially thought it was an event within The Hague University of Applied Sciences. So they were surprised when they learned that they were taking part in a national competition. A total of eight teams from different universities of applied sciences competed against each other. During the plenary opening session, more and more people dressed in suits walked in. This was quite impressive to the participants. The ‘suits’ included an alderman, as well as people from the municipality, the professional organisation Techniek Nederland and a number of companies of major importance within the technology sector.
The assignment was to greenify a neighbourhood in Zoetermeer. They knew about this in advance, so they were able to prepare a little in advance, which was recommended. Now that these students had committed to the event, they were in it to win. Sjoerd comments, “After reading the assignment, we concluded that, of all the assessment factors, public support would be the most challenging one. The technology is out there, only the possibilities are virtually endless, so you have to make decisions. A business plan has to be worked out. Since the greatest challenge for the municipality would be to garner public support for the idea, we decided that would be our focus.” Before the competition began, they contacted the other team members and even divided up tasks beforehand. They would work in three subgroups, each of which would carry out a sub-study: financial, technical and social aspects.
Full speed ahead
While the other groups were still getting better acquainted at 8:30 in the morning, Team 1 set to work immediately. “That’s an extra hour of productivity,” says Midas. One of the groups visited the neighbourhood, while the others stayed inside. They facetimed to update each other on their progress and adapt their approach accordingly. Sjoerd explains, “The two team members from Heijmans came up with the public support story and we added details and adapted it in response to the comments of those who live in the neighbourhood.” Midas adds, “And I worked with someone from Heijmans on the technological aspect. We were both on the same level, so we understood each other from the get-go.”
The agreed approach turned out to be a good one. “A well-oiled machine,” says Midas. Sjoerd adds, “We also got lucky with the neighbourhood. We rang doorbells at random houses and, two minutes later, were sitting on the couch talking to people. That makes it all a whole lot easier. We asked all of the local residents the same question (How would you describe your neighbourhood in a few words?) and filmed their responses. We then used the films during our final pitch. The jury initially thought we had made everything up, but then realised it was genuine.”
Action plan – Support
Our students really did their homework. The jury was particularly impressed by how the team worked on the public support aspect. When Sjoerd, Jimmy and Tina canvassed the neighbourhood, they asked residents if they were open to the idea of changes to their neighbourhood in terms of energy supply and/or if they were willing to brainstorm with the municipality about this. Sjoerd says, “Every one of them was positive about this. That’s great news to give the authorities.” The team proposed choosing one house in the neighbourhood to greenify completely as a sort of model home. The residents can then be given the opportunity to spend a weekend in the home free of charge and compare the energy use with their own home. They can also offer all kinds of advantages to those who participate in the project. For example, residents can request something in return from the municipality, such as a crossing guard to ensure that children can safely cross the street on their way to school. Sjoerd adds, “The municipality thought it was an interesting idea to give something back in the form of small expense items in order to gain support.”
Action plan – Technology
Midas explains, “The technology starts with the construction of a district heating system in the city, with a hot water flow pipe up to the meter cupboard in every house and a return pipe. This is a major undertaking for the residents of terraced houses, so support is important. The situation is quite different for apartment buildings because it is not necessary to connect to each individual residence; everything is done centrally in the basement.” Thermal energy storage around 150-200 metres underground keeps the district heating system warm. Residents decide for themselves when to switch to the heat pump because Midas and his team members fully understand that residents with a fully functioning boiler may not want to invest in a heat pump right away. Solar panels can also be installed. Again, residents have a number of options. Those who do not want to purchase the solar panels can rent out their roof to the energy supplier, who then installs the solar panels and pays the resident for this. After 10 years, the panels become the property of the resident.
Zoetermeer aims to eliminate all natural gas use by the year 2040. It is not known whether hydrogen will be used on a large scale in the future, but if the Municipality of Zoetermeer is ready for this when the time comes, our students’ proposal allows for this prospect. Midas explains, “With our plan, the neighbourhood is equipped for the future. No one knows whether hydrogen will be a viable option. I believe it will, but half of all scientists disagree with me.” The prize won by the team during the Techathon 2019 consists of a trophy, cash prize and hydrogen study trip. They will soon be spending an all-inclusive weekend studying all the ins and outs of hydrogen. When exactly this will take place is not known yet, but will be scheduled so that it does not conflict with exams.
A career in energy technology
Do the two of them want to actually work with energy technology in the future? Midas responds, “Absolutely! I’m already doing an internship in energy technology as part of the SET minor. I spend one day a week trying to get the Amsterdam city centre to stop using natural gas. I’ve already arranged to do my graduation internship at the same company, so I can continue doing the same work, which I’m really happy about. I haven’t figured out yet what I want to do after graduation, but I wouldn’t mind being sent out on location. I’ll see what happens. I’m still young.”
Sjoerd responds, “Yes! I think it’s incredibly interesting. In fact, one of the reasons I chose Mechanical Engineering is because of energy technology. During the first few classes on energy technology, I realised that this was the way of the future, that it’s not only relevant today but will continue to be important in the future. I’m not graduating with a degree in energy technology, but I decided to do the minor programme because I’m interested in the subject and the minor and Techathon made me realise that this is my passion. I’m thinking about working in horticulture, but haven’t decided yet.”
Energy technology: What makes it so interesting?
Sjoerd responds, “ We attended a lecture together, the inaugural lecture by Professor Sander Mertens from the Faculty of Technology, Innovation & Society. He talked about what the future will bring and all the possibilities, which made me realise that I can actually contribute to this. How awesome is that? Climate change is still a very hot topic and that has a direct impact on energy technology and its future. You get to work on something significant that is actually going to happen. If everything stays the same, you can’t distinguish yourself through the knowledge you acquire during your studies. But this is very well possible in energy technology.”
Midas says, “I consider it a major challenge. If you work in a different sector, you run the risk of ending up in a field with little innovation. But, in this field, you know that change is coming, that every neighbourhood is unique. All the challenges, brainstorming and coming up with new solutions together, are what I like most about it.”
Midas adds, “It was a real eye-opener for me. This kind of competition is lots of fun. Connecting and casting a few lines to companies is important for your own future. And that’s exactly what we got to do.” Of course, it would be fantastic if the Municipality of Zoetermeer actually implemented their plan. “It would be great to be able to say that it was our idea,” says Sjoerd.